Pantagraph, The (Bloomington, IL)

June 15, 2001

Native Americans
Miami (Native American tribe)
land claims

Miami Tribe drops land suit
Tactic signals new strategy by legal team

Author: MICHAEL FREIMANN and KURT ERICKSON Pantagraph staff

Article Text:

BENTON - In a surprise legal tactic, the Miami Indian Tribe of Oklahoma has asked a federal court judge to dismiss its lawsuit against 15 Illinois landowners and the state of Illinois. The lawsuit, filed last June, sought to reclaim land the Miami says was taken nearly 200 years ago.

U.S. District Judge J. Phil Gilbert granted the request Thursday. Under federal court rules, the tribe may ask for the request as long as the defendants have not filed a motion for summary judgment or answered the initial lawsuit.

The tribe's new Washington, D.C.-based attorney, Leslie Turner of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld LLP, said the dismissal marks the beginning of a strategy by the tribe in pursuing its claim on 2.6 million acres.

"We filed the motion to dismiss and made the request because we feel there is a better way to resolve this suit than singling out these 15 landowners," Turner said.

"We felt the current approach put the focus too much on procedural issues such as the state's right to intervene and we wanted to put the focus of this case back on the tribe's claim of treaty title."

Turner said he did not know when the claim would move forward or what approach the tribe might now take.

"We are in the midst of discussions on how to proceed," Turner said. "There are several options open to the tribe and the option we choose will focus on the merits of this claim."

Refiling the lawsuit is one of those options, but Turner would not say against whom any lawsuit would be filed. He did say the 15 individual landowners would not be part of a new lawsuit.

Miami chief Floyd Leonard said the move was made to take the landowners off the hook.

"We recently began a complete review of our legal strategy and concluded that those 15 innocent people and their families should not be unfairly singled out," Leonard said.

When it filed its lawsuit, the tribe randomly chose the landowners - one to represent each of the 15 Illinois counties covered under the claim.

Attorney General Jim Ryan welcomed news that the lawsuit had been dismissed. The state in March was granted the right to intervene on behalf of the landowners and in April asked Gilbert to dismiss the lawsuit and force the tribe to take its claim up with the federal government.

"We are pleased we have defeated this troubling lawsuit," said Ryan.

The state had girded for a long fight, with the legislature last month passing a bill to help pay for the landowners' private legal expenses. The bill made available $100,000 annually to cover those costs.

Turner said that the dismissal does not mean that the issue is settled.

"I don't want this dismissal to be seen as a sign of weakness," Turner said. "There is no question the tribe has a strong legal and moral case here. The tribe is going to aggressively pursue its land claim."

Copyright (c) 2001, Pantagraph Publishing Co.
Record Number: 0EC7F5E5E5F74663

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